|01-04-2013 - Traces, n. 4
Giving Up “Shotgun”
The annual CL university students’ Spiritual Exercises in the U.S. challenged the many attendees with the question: “What can separate us from the love of Christ?” One of them relates his experience of those days, spent contemplating the only Presence who was able to break down all his presuppositions–including the ones he had about himself...
by Richard Hertzberg
“What can separate us from the love of Christ?” This was the question printed on the big poster greeting me behind the main table of the CL university students (CLU) Spiritual Exercises in Scranton, PA, this past March–and I quickly answered: “Nothing can.”
It turns out that the people running the Exercises had the same answer as I did. Even though I found out that I had the right answer on the first night, I stayed for two more nights, and here’s why. For the most part, it is really easy to get the right answers. But my faith is not the ability to repeat what the Church says; it is the action of seeing and verifying it by being attentive to the things in front of you for what they really are. For this reason, I stuck around to see if my answer would manifest itself in reality during the next two days.
Before the Exercises started, the CLU responsible, Fr. Pietro, asked me to write an article about this weekend. I asked him what exactly that meant and he responded, “I don’t know yet; we will have to wait until the weekend is over.” He could have given me his lesson notes for a short summary–but lesson notes would not accurately portray what happened, because what happens is inside a person and among a people. That weekend, many things happened among all the people who sat, talked, listened, sang, laughed, stood up, kneeled, prayed, hugged, meditated, and cried. But I am going to tell you what happened to me.
I did something I never thought I would do after knowing I would be “tested.” I put less emphasis on my notepad so that I could really experience the weekend–by living attentively. I didn’t get caught up trying to write down each quote, all the while missing the next minute of the lesson. And I watched faces. In this way, I saw my answer to the question on the poster become Flesh and actually mean something to my life. And now here I am, typing an article using memories that are burned so deeply from that weekend and these past months in general that writing is not an exercise but a welcome moment of reflection.
The reason for happiness. Although the question posed by the Exercises could be answered in one word, “nothing,” it was what Fr. Pietro said on the first day that helped me to really understand the profundity of the question: “Ideas create idols; only wonder leads to understanding” (St. Gregory of Nyssa). This quote hit me like a bus. These were the exact and concise words that could sum up the reason I had been so happy for the past two months of my life.
Two months ago, I met Christ for the first time in the flesh. I met Him during a car ride with Msgr. Albacete. I had just returned from a semester studying abroad in Santiago, Chile. I left for Chile hating the CLU group and hating the fact that I couldn’t manipulate the people in CLU the way I usually can others. They were always happy even when I would blatantly and purposefully disrespect them. I was mad because their happiness did not depend on me. They never once told me to leave. But I didn’t recognize the beauty in this until I went to Chile and no longer had a language to depend on. I couldn’t lie, make jokes, or create a “cool” image for myself. I was a body–that was it. I realized, as did the prodigal son, that I had to seek out the CLU in Chile because I really missed their undeserved love for me. I found them; I could not speak to them, but they loved me the same way people back in DC did. This time, I did not push the love away; I allowed myself to need it.
In Chile, I finally wanted to really understand this CLU group that I had been a “member” of for 3 years. So I started following the “rules” of Catholicism, but that was really hard. I couldn’t understand how Christ is an event that is present today. I also couldn’t understand how people could say that they see Christ in me if I can’t even see Him in myself. But those Chileans were happy and I wanted to be happy so I followed what they were following. Then I met Msgr. Albacete and saw that he was happy like the Chileans, so I told him my doubts. He said, with his simple directness, “If you want to know Christ, you just have to know me.”
I was silenced in front of that claim. I understood in that moment why they call it Communion and Liberation. Only through communion with one another, can we know Christ now! Only through a welcoming of the path that He gave us personally can we be liberated from the captivity of anxiety and obsession with appearances. As I understood even more deeply during the Exercises, through His mercy we learn mercy and through His Love we learn love. There is no other way. Everything else we try to do becomes just another elaborate but failed attempt to quiet the desire in each and every human to be truly loved. God gave us a method through a Person who lived with us. This is Catholicism: you just have to follow Him wherever you see Him. There is a reason Fr. Carrón got mad at all of us CLU students who got up at the New York Encounter in January and tried to answer his questions as if he were testing us. Fr. Carrón, in his incisive way, let us know that Catholicism isn’t a test. It is openness to the mystery.
The best week of my life. While I write this, I am on a road trip with my dad–the first time I have seen him since I met Albacete, so I have been able to live with him in a totally different and amazing way. I pray the Hours with him every morning and spend the day on the road talking about the meaning of everything we encounter. I have never been this candid with my parents. Because of this openness to Christ, this has been the best week of my life. In a certain sense, it has been my first week ever really with my dad. He is a writer whose own father warned him against writing what people already know. My dead grandpa had a point. We in Communion and Liberation, through our witnesses and testimonies, are just repackaging the human drama. But this is important: the drama we are repackaging is the drama of a mystery that can sustain our lives and bring curiosity back into our hearts.
I used to always look back and think that my best years were the years before high school. Tomorrow didn’t matter back then. I knew my friends would be at school and my mom would pack my lunch. It didn’t occur to me–until I lost it–that this kind of mentality was a special and uncommon gift. When I became a teen, I started trying to make people look at me the way my mom did by following my own ideas of what I should be. I built my life on this foundation so many times over the years that it became a game to see which image worked the best and for the longest before it crumbled. Then, a few months ago, I began to put my days in the hands of Christ every morning through praying and meditating on the Book of Hours. Because of this experience of silence, I began to really relax, love, laugh, joke, and live.
Returning to the question, what can separate us from the love of Christ? Nothing can, but you can ignore the love through your hopeless search to sustain yourself. But all those self-sustained buildings fall down and end in tragedy. I know this from my life. Real and lasting joy becomes tangible through witnesses, like when we listened to the witness of Frank Simmonds at the CLU Exercises: “I met Christ and I met joy. Nobody can take this joy from me. I can give it up, but nobody can take it from me. I’m facing stage four cancer right now and I am already past my due date, but if I were to die here, with you all, tonight, I would die with a smile on my face.”
And this is what happened to me on the weekend of the Exercises. I saw it happening in 70 people and my curiosity for life and the mystery was reinforced through the company of those people. That weekend reminded me why I let Jesus take “shotgun,” even though I called it. He is a much better navigator than I am. As long as I am running on the fuel of faith, I am pointed in the right direction.